When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his classic “I Have A Dream” speech 50 years ago, he hearkened back to a watershed moment a century earlier, noting that “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand, signed the Emancipation Proclamation.”
What many at that historic event in August 1963 did not realize, and many students of African-American history and culture today do not know, is that Dr. King had called for another presidential proclamation.
According to historian Taylor Branch, Dr. King had spent two years trying to get President Kennedy to commit to a second Emancipation Proclamation. In latest his book, The King Years, Branch states that on a visit with President Kennedy a year earlier, Dr. King pointed out a framed copy of Lincoln’s document as they walked through the White House and asked the president to issue a new proclamation emancipating black people from segregation. The president gave a polite, noncommittal answer.
Branch says King went ahead and drew up a document anyway. But when he finally realized that he could not rely on President Kennedy or other politicians to end segregation, he and fellow civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph decided to stay away from a celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation’s centennial that the Kennedy White House hosted in 1963 on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.
It was a very strategic move, noted Simeon Booker, considered the dean of Washington’s black press corps. “They had no interest in attending a social event while younger Blacks, including college students, were being arrested in the South for violating Jim Crow laws,” he said.
Shortly after the White House celebration, black students from middle and high schools in Birmingham would be brutalized by the city’s infamous police with high-powered streams from fire hoses and police dogs as they protested segregation. That was a turning point in Americans’ sympathies, and President Kennedy knew it. In a June address to the nation, the president announced that “Next week, I shall ask the Congress of the United States to act … to make a commitment it has not fully made in this century: The proposition that race has no place in American life or law.”
President Kennedy would not live to see it, but that was the beginning of Dr. King’s desired second emancipation.
Reginald A. Bess
Chairman of English and Foreign Languages, Claflin University